In an interview Sunday evening with CBS’s 60 Minutes, “economic nationalist” Steve Bannon claimed that the only reason U.S. Catholic bishops have publicly denounced the president’s decision to rescind Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is that “they need illegal aliens to fill the churches. They have an economic interest in unlimited immigration.” Then, as though reciting a portion of the Mass, he remarked three times in a row that his strong disagreement with the Catholic Church on immigration is “not about doctrine,” concluding by saying that that “this is about the sovereignty of a nation.”
As a Christian pastor in North America, this brief exchange is an altogether stunning though unsurprising one for me.
Stunning, in how magnanimously it bastardizes the Christian religion, as though we can find nothing in our sacred text, the life of Jesus, or the Church mothers and fathers that might tell us a thing or two about immigration.
Unsurprising, in how it confirms what North American Christians, particularly white North American Christians, have been doing for centuries on this soil: separating politics from faith when it suits their economic and social interests. “Doctrine” magically and mysteriously finds itself relegated to issues like the virgin birth, which kind of atonement to subscribe to, how many of the letters in TULIP we should claim, and what kind of baptism ensures our salvation.
All the while, topics like “sovereignty of a nation” get to stand on their own, free from the entanglements of theological exploration and indictment, not to mention the witness of an enslaved, immigrant Exodus-people and a refugee infant we worship named Jesus.
Unfortunately (and dangerously,) this phenomenon within American Christendom is neither magical nor mysterious. It is a historical, deliberate, persistent, and longstanding attempt to whitewash the liberating arc of the gospel, the narrative arc of Scripture, and the moral arc of the universe ever-bending towards justice.
In the church I pastor, we have spent the last two months engaging a seemingly radical but, I would argue, not-so-radical claim about the Bible: that the entire sacred story, start-to-finish, is a story about immigration, diaspora, journey, and home. Unfortunately, a few hundred years of theology and exegesis have somehow missed that boat, extracting, distilling and sometimes even outright denying that that whole story of Scripture has profound diasporic roots.
As Miguel de La Torre puts it in his Belief commentary on Genesis, “all the patriarchs [and matriarchs] … were sojourners. The narratives of Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph are the stories of aliens trying to survive among unfamiliar people in a land that belonged to others. Is it any wonder that the second most common phrase throughout the biblical text exhorts the reader to take care of the alien among you, along with the widows and orphans?”
What if a strong majority of white Christian Americans imagined conversations about “doctrine” as conversations about DACA, about Temporary Protected Status, about immigration, about our unjust deportation system, about mass incarceration, about the economic exploitation of people made in the divine image of God, about real things in this life that matter to real people?
It’s hard to imagine 19th-century Christians headlocked in heated debates about personal piety and baptism while avoiding lengthy conversations about the injustices of chattel slavery. It’s hard to imagine 20th-century Christians fuming over evolution and the inerrancy of Scripture and not about a woman’s right to vote or establishing fair labor laws.
But if we’ve been trained to think that doctrine has much to do with heaven, hell and transubstantiation and little to do with economic justice and hospitality to the immigrant, it’s not really all that hard to imagine.
So let me be clear for my Christian siblings reading this:
- DACA is emphatically and without question an issue of doctrine.
- Comprehenesive immigration reform is emphatically and without question an issue of doctrine.
- National sovereignty is emphatically and without question an issue of doctrine.
And if we care about following Jesus rightly, it is well past time to re-evaluate what we do and do not call faithful Christian doctrine. All the while, Jesus says to us, “Woe to you, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.”
Let’s give our doctrine hands and feet before it’s too late.